Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong

Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong
(Robert R. Reilly, February 9, 2016)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Robert R. Reilly spoke to the Military History Legion at The University Club on February 9. Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Office of The Secretary of Defense, where he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006).

He participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of information. Before that, he was director of the Voice of America, where he had worked the prior decade.

Mr. Reilly served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985), and in the U.S. Information Agency both in D.C. and abroad. In the private sector, he spent more than seven years with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, as both national director and then president.

He was on active duty as an armored cavalry officer for two years, and attended Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University. He has published widely on foreign policy, the “war of ideas”, and classical music.

He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of:

The Closing of the Muslim Mind (October 17, 2016)

Information Operations: Successes and Failures (September 6, 2013)

Dangerous Embrace: The United States and the Islamists (May 22, 2012)

The Challenge of Islam to the Catholic Church (February 4, 2010)



Bob Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute. He’s written for the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post — we won’t hold that against you — the Reader’s Digest, National Review, and many other publications. He was former director of the Voice of America. He’s taught at the National Defense University, served in the White House, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and he also participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I ask you to welcome Bob Reilly.

Robert Reilly:

Jeff, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great pleasure to be with you this evening. You may have seen, the lecture topic was switched. Jeff actually came to the Westminster Institute for a talk on the subject. In our email exchanges that topic stayed with the title. My talk title was in the text message, so do you know what I’m talking about tonight? If you do, tell me. I think you know, it’s ‘Deciphering the Middle East: Why the United States Usually Gets it Wrong.’ But I will touch upon the subject of jihad and you may notice that this is such a disgusting subject that I will have an adult beverage with me up here while we are discussing it. It’s also kind of body language to let you know that I am not a Muslim.

Now, you may have noticed in the news that when the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran went through Italy and France, at the state dinners which he attended, no wine was served. I’ve been to France and Italy many times. I’ve never seen a meal without wine and that was done so President Rouhani’s Islamic faith would not be offended by the presence of alcoholic beverages, which brought to mind a memory of Winston Churchill when he was Prime Minister and King Saud was visiting him at 10 Downing Street.

King Saud’s emissary arrived at 10 Downing Street to go over the requirements for the dinner with Churchill and he said to the Prime Minister, for religious reasons no alcoholic beverages will be served in His Majesty’s presence, to which Churchill responded, “Champagne will be served before dinner, Bordeaux will be served with dinner, and cognac will be served after dinner also for religious reasons.” And so it was.

So now, I’d better move on and address our subject of, “Deciphering the Middle East: Why the United States Usually Gets it Wrong.” So, I think we need to pull back and consider a little history on the relationship between the United States and the Middle East and first of all, we will notice that there wasn’t much of one if one at all for the major part of the history of the United States. Why? Because the United States didn’t have any vital, strategic interests there.

The feeling was apparently mutual as no Middle Eastern country opened an embassy in Washington until the Ottomans in 1873. It was not until 1909 that the U.S. State Department created its Near Eastern Affairs division. In 1913, Assistant Secretary of State Francis Huntington Wilson announced, “It’s no place to waste ammunition.” Well, apparently some things change.

Now, the United States as is obvious from our origin, has consistently been an anti colonial power and this has given us a certain perspective on the world. So, when we began noticing the Middle East and considering our relationship to it, the first thing we noticed was it was the object of imperial powers and at the time of our first serious association with it it was subject to Ottoman imperialism.

And so the notion arose, should only the Arab peoples be given their freedom? If the shackles of Ottoman imperialism could be lifted from them, the Arabs would naturally assume the blessings of liberty and self-government. Because our perspective was if you don’t have the exercise of these rights, it’s because someone has taken it from you.

The Ottomans insisted on entering World War I. As you know, Churchill had promised them if they stayed out of it, the British Empire would guarantee the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Foolishly, they entered it. The empire collapsed at the end of the war and what took the place of Ottoman imperialism was British and French imperialism.

So the story with the United States changed a little bit. If only the Arab peoples could be free from Western, French, and British imperialism, the Arab peoples would assume upon themselves the blessings of liberty and self-government. And the United States was known as an anti-imperial power. At the conclusion of the war we pressured both the French and the British to abandon their colonial possessions. And then in 1956 in the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower cemented this reputation by opposing the Israelis, the French, and the British when they repossessed the Suez Canal after Nasser had expropriated it from them, and Eisenhower told them to get out.

So understandably, we were popular. The United States was admired. And so we thought now that the British and French imperial powers have withdrawn, the Arab peoples will take upon themselves self-government with the blessings of liberty. The British and the French, exhausted from the war and their imperial endeavors, eventually withdrew. And the United States because of the strategic interest it had there, principally, obviously, oil, had to fill in their shoes and we made an amazing discovery: that the problems in the Middle East or a good deal of them were not a product of Ottoman imperialism or Western imperialism, they were indigenous to the region. Only now they were our problems.

The United States formed its foreign policy in respect to the Middle East from Truman on because of the vital strategic asset of oil there, that we would not allow any antagonistic, hegemonic power to gain control of those supplies. This policy was reiterated. This was a bipartisan policy. It was reiterated by every president. You may recall Jimmy Carter, hardly known as a hardcore president on foreign policy, repeating this.

After the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and worries persisted that this might be a lurch toward the Middle Eastern oil resources through this long tunnel into Iran. In fact, he made the announcement, repeating this policy, saying that if any hostile power attempted to become the hegemon in the Middle East, that would be a casus belli for the United States, consistently articulated.

Now, of course, the Soviet Union fell apart, but this policy persisted in a slightly reformulated fashion. Since we were no longer worried about an antagonistic, hegemonic power from outside the Middle East, we then concentrated on any local hegemon whose ambitions would imperil the strategic interests of the United States. And so it was that when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, took it over, made several military feints into Saudi Arabia, the President George Bush Sr. created the coalition to throw Saddam out.

This was consistent with U.S. foreign policy since the end of the war. Now, I was a supporter of that policy at the time as I was in the subsequent war Operation Iraqi Freedom. As Jeff told you, I participated in a minor way in that. Now, the problem with the First Gulf War is that President Bush did not finish it. He thought that the defeat of the Iraqi Armed Forces was sufficient to generate internal forces within Iraq that would have overthrown Saddam Hussein, meaning he did not have a sufficient understanding of the Ba’ath Party apparatus or the Mukhabarat or military intelligence in Iraq. That was not going to happen.

I was doing a weekly television radio show at the Voice of America World Net TV on an anniversary of that war and I had in the studio Richard Haass, who is now the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. He had been the principal National Security Council (NSC) advisor during the First Gulf War. We were off camera and off mic and I said to him, “Why didn’t you call the defeated generals to the tent?” because the rap on this is, well, we would have had to go to Baghdad. No, we would not have [had to go to Baghdad]. Why didn’t you call the defeated generals to the tent and simply say, “Gentlemen, you have 48 hours to reconstitute your regime without Saddam Hussein, and after 48 hours if you have not done that, we are not coming for Saddam, we are coming for you, so let’s all reset our watches and good luck to you.”

So I said to Mr. Haass, why didn’t you do that, and his answer was startling. He said the generals who could have done that would not have come to the tent. The generals of a defeated army will not come to the tent? That means you have not defeated the army, and so it was the United States consciously allowed the Republican Guard to escape its grasp before imposing terms upon it, thus necessitating another war more than a decade later. In the tremendous criticism that this Iraq policy has come under, particularly the fiasco that Operation Iraqi Freedom eventually became, I always say, yes, I know this turns out to have been a terrible mistake, but how would you have ended the war?

It is usually what, what do you mean? The war was still going on. If you remember the northern no-fly zone, the southern no-fly zone, if you remember the American and allied aircraft were being fired upon by Iraqi anti-aircraft guns weekly. Tell me how you would have ended that war, how would you have sustained the effort, the no-fly zones and the humanitarian effort. When I was in Baghdad in the Spring of 2003, I was living in Saddam’s Republican palace. I cannot tell you how bizarre an experience that was, but on the the marble entrance was an Arabic inscription, which I asked my Kurdish friend to read, and it said, “This palace was rebuilt in honor of Saddam Hussein’s victory over the United States in 1991.”

You laugh, but it was [a victory]. More than a decade later he was still there, and he was still there in defiance of the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, so if you win a war and you do not enforce the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, you have not won the war, and everyone throughout the Middle East, believe me, could read that inscription in the Republican palace, so I think it behooved President George W. Bush to finally bring him into compliance and end that war, but not the way we did, that involved some major misunderstandings.

Here is one of them. A former Israeli intelligence agent said to me before Operation Iraqi Freedom, I hope you understand that no one there wishes you well. No one there wishes you well. What did he mean by that? He meant that none of the countries, none of the Arab countries in the Middle East wished us success. It was not in their interest that we succeed in the terms in which we define success, so if you are going, go knowing that no one there wishes you well because the terms in which you define success, which is a free, constitutional, rule of law, market economy in Iraq, was inimical to the interest of the Ba’athist regime in Syria because it would delegitimize it, and it was certainly against the interests of Iran for reasons we never seem to articulate or completely understand.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Shia population in Iraq was severely repressed. Najaf and Karbala, those two cities together are the Rome of Shia Islam, [and] because of the terrible suppression by Saddam the temporary headquarters, the sort of Avignon papacy of the Shia world, was Qom in Iran, so the senior Ayatollahs were in Qom or London. Now, the promise that the second Iraq War held out after liberating Iraq was that the theological center of gravity would move from Qom back to Najaf and Karbala, where, indeed, Ayatollah Sistani went and where Ayatollah [Abdul-Majid] Al Khoei tried to return, and he was murdered there in the Spring of 2003. When that happened, my heart sank.

Ayatollah [Abdul-Majid] Al Khoei and Sistani represented the traditional, Shia theological orthodoxy of Quietest Shia Islam, where you endure whatever you have to in the current political order because what we are really waiting for is the return of the Mahdi, and so it does not have an activist revolutionary program.

Now, the Iranians understood this, and therefore they wanted to go into Iraq and co-opt the theological center of gravity [from] moving back there. That was the greatest threat to their legitimacy because traditional Shi’ism does not include the Velâyat-e Faqih doctrine of the rule of the jurisprudence in Iran, that Ayatollah Khomeini instigated, so this was a question of theological legitimacy, which was life and death for Iran and also for the Ba’ath regime in Syria for Assad.

So the first thing we should have been prepared for in invading that country was in preventing those powers from interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq, and I can tell you that we failed miserably. There was massive internal interference from both Syria and Iran. You know, first they tested. As we were going or preparing to go into Iraq, the Iranians were very worried because we were already in Afghanistan and they knew we were not going to be able to take out Saddam, so we had Iran flanked, so the Iranians were all cooperation, contacting the United States, saying in your military operations should any of your pilots be shot down and come into Iranian airspace, we want to tell you, we will guarantee their safety, return them safely to you.

This Iran was afraid, but when they began probing in Iraq and met with no resistance, their fear disappeared, and when Assad started penetrating from the west, he found the same thing. When they set up the ratlines to send in great numbers of jihadists to attack U.S. troops and the Iraqi government, massive internal interference. In the fledgling media operation of which I was a part, I can tell you before we had anything on the air, Iran had to 24/7 TV stations in the Arabic operating. They had transmitters inside Iraq.

General Sanchez as you know was one of the ground commanders in Iraq, and the day after he retired, I had a chance to ask him a question, and I said General Sanchez, knowing that success as we defined it was inimical to the interests of Iran and Syria, why were we not prepared to stop the massive interference from both of those countries in the internal affairs of Iraq? Two-word answer from General Sanchez: significant neglect, significant neglect.

Anyone who understood the Middle East, like my Israeli friend, would know that no one wished us well. Anyone who understood what was at stake for Syria and Iran would know what they would attempt to do, and yet we failed to anticipate that and take any action to it. And of course, as you know, we dissolved the Iraqi army instead of immediately reconstituting it and sending it to guard the borders or guard the installations.

Well, that is all. I have so many mistakes we made in the Middle East. I have to keep going along here. Now, the next mistake of significant magnitude was our misunderstanding of the Arab Spring. Here, again, finally, perhaps the American vision was coming true, that the dead hand of the local despots was being removed by the people themselves, and what would replace it? Self-government, lessons of Liberty, as this is what these people wished or – and of course, when one’s heart went out to the people involved in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, hoping that finally some kind of decent rule of law, constitutional government could come out of this.

That was a completely unrealistic expectation. There were only three possible beneficiaries of the outcome of [the] Arab Spring as they were the only organized entities in the Arab world which could take advantage of the mayhem that was developing. Number one, the military, Mukhabarat, king or quasi king, that apparatus, the Islamist apparatus and the Muslim Brotherhood as it had monopolized the Islamic education system, and monopolized the mosques. They had been preparing for this moment for 80 years. They were organized, highly disciplined. They were in a position to benefit from it, and the only other institution that would would be the tribes, so it would be one of those three.

Well, of course, one of those three had already been running things, so if there was an overthrow of [a government], one of the other three would take over from it, and it would depend on what part of the Middle East we are talking about because in some areas of it the tribes are strong, like Somalia or Libya, in some places the tribes are not so strong, and it is other, you know, affiliations through the ruler or the Islamists. And so it was the hopes of the Arab Spring were dashed and we saw that in the largest Arab country, an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood takeover, the nightmare for the United States.

The Muslim Brotherhood began in 1928, four years after the dissolution of the last Caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood began precisely with the mission of restoring the Caliphate. That has been its purpose since its beginning. Now, almost every Islamist and terrorist group in the Sunni world is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas, including Al Qaeda, including al-Nusra. They are all offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. They in some way or another share in the ideology of the Brotherhood, perhaps in a more radical way or with different tactical understanding of the situation.

Yet what should the United States do under President Obama but celebrate, but welcome the Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian presidency under Mohammed Morsi. It had been the policy of the Obama administration from the beginning to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood. When Obama made his famous speech in Cairo in 2009, he arranged for Muslim Brotherhood figures to be in the first row. As a consequence of which, of course, President Mubarak did not go, and members, senior members of his administration, did not go. That was the Obama signal that the Muslim Brotherhood is fine with the United States.

Now, a year afterwards what appears to have been the largest demonstrations in human history in Egypt overthrew President Morsi, who had assumed powers beyond the dreams of the Pharaohs. He had done exactly what anyone who understood the Muslim Brotherhood would do – which is to create an authoritarian, leading to a totalitarian, regime. And thank heavens, the Egyptian military stepped in at the behest of these enormous civilian demonstrations to put an end to that Morsi Presidency. As a consequence of which, of course, the Obama administration suspended military relationships and aid to Egypt because al Sisi had just saved America’s strategic interests in the Middle East but has to be punished for that.

This attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood, by the way, could be manifest in Obama’s visit to the local mosque in Baltimore the other week. In all of his talks about Islam he has never gone to Muslims who reject the Muslim Brotherhood, who in fact are the intellectual reform wing of Islam. It is small, but it is there, and there are any number of people who do not want to be co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood, who, unfortunately, more or less are because of the focus of this administration.

Now, what I should do is go over some fundamental theological and philosophical issues that are embedded in the Middle East to an extent that is beyond the comprehension of most Americans because they have not acquainted themselves with this theology. There was a huge battle in the Muslim world in the ninth century over the status of reason. The caliphate at that point was located in Baghdad. It was absorbing the impact of Greek philosophy and Hellenic thinking. It had set up the House of Wisdom, it had set up an enormous translation effort to have these Greek texts translated. First, they were in Syriac and then into Arabic. The first Arab Muslim philosopher, al Kindi, appeared.

This was the efflorescence. This was – when people talked about the Golden Age of Islam, it is Baghdad [in the] first half of the ninth century, a tremendously promising period. Now, the nature of the theological struggle that took place at that time on the status of reason was whether God himself was reason or whether he was pure will and power, and the Mu’tazilite side, sponsored by the Caliph, said God is reason, he has given us our reason to understand the rational order of his creation through which to come to know him, and through which to come to know the difference between right and wrong, for he has given us freewill so that we may choose that right, and we can understand what he wants us to do through our reason simply by examining his creation, not just Muslims, anyone, all men can do this.

In addition, of course, we find that God has spoken to us. he has given us his revelation, and we are to understand that revelation in terms of reason. If there is anything unreasonable in it, we are not understanding it correctly because it must be brought into a court of reason. Primacy of reason held place in Islam at that time. The opposition rose, the Ash’arites, to say God is not reason, he is pure will and power. He can do anything. He is not bound by anything. There is no natural law, everything [that] happens is the direct result of God’s will. No one has any power but God, and all things are determined by Him.

Oops, what happened there?

Audience member:

God’s will.

Robert R. Reilly:

Bill got it straight. The rest of you have committed the sin of shirk, which is blasphemy in Islam. It was God’s will that made the pen fall, not gravity. Otherwise, you would be associating something with God by saying there is some rule outside of Him that orders or determines things, so it is God [that] is the first and only cause, there are no subsidiary laws, there is no causality, there is no cause and effect in the world. Fire does not burn cotton, God does. Gravity does not make the rock fall, God does.

As you might imagine, the embrace of this extraordinary metaphysics and theology brought that efflorescence of culture under the Mu’tazilite Caliphs to a close or at least it began dying out, and if you are wondering why today in the Arab world it comes in next to last except for sub-Saharan Africa and this is according to the UN Human Development reports written all by Arabs, next-to-last in every category of human development; education, healthcare, GDP, number of patents.

South Korea produces more patents in a year than the entire Arab Muslim world. Spain in a single year – I choose Spain because my wife is Spanish, sitting patiently in the back of the room – translates more books in a year than the Arab Muslim world has done in the last thousand years, so you see what was a once great civilization fall into this state of dysfunction. And the thesis of the book that Jeff was kind enough to have mentioned, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, is the story of how a deformed theology led to a dysfunctional culture, and that is what we are faced with in the Middle East today.

I want to give you a little sample of how this plays out. The word mind in Arabic is etymologically derived from the name of the process of time to gather cattle legs so that they cannot move or stand, so it is a binding thing, it prevents you, it does not allow you. Now, the greatest theologian of the Ash’arite movement on the primacy of power and the denigration of reason had this to say. It is, by the way, Muhammad al-Ghazali, “The mind once it testifies to the truthfulness of the Prophet must cease to act.” The mind once it testifies to the truth of the Prophet must cease to act.

Now, King Hussein of Jordan in the last interview he gave before he died, to an American journalist he was asked this, “Would you agree that the Muslim decline can be dated from the ninth century when Islam missed the chance to become a religion of reason and moderation by crushing the Mu’tazilite movement?” King Hussein answers, “That is essentially correct, and we must do what we can to change that now.” Well, I actually work with Muslims who are trying to change that now, and they are exactly the Muslims to which this administration does not turn to in either acknowledgement or support, and they are not alone in doing that.

See the rest of his speech here…